Basketball / NBA

Yuta Watanabe encourages youth to pursue basketball dreams

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

Memphis Grizzlies two-way signing Yuta Watanabe is one of the star players that Japanese children gaze at dreamily.

While growing up in Kagawa Prefecture, Watanabe admired Yuta Tabuse, who became the first Japanese player in the NBA during the 2004-05 season.

Speaking in front of about 200 fans during a talk show at a Tokyo sporting goods shop on Thursday, Watanabe, now 24, humbly said that he doesn’t feel like he’s become an idol for boys and girls that play the game.

“When I was an elementary school student, Tabuse debuted in the NBA and I was like, ‘That’s incredible,’ ” Watanabe said. “And now people feel that way about me. It makes me feel surreal.”

Last year, the George Washington University alum followed the former Phoenix Suns guard’s path by becoming only the second Japanese NBA player. Competing in both the NBA and NBA G League (for the Memphis Hustle), he admitted that it was a hectic season, but one that was a great experience.

“It was harder than I thought it would be,” the 206-cm forward said, reflecting on his first season as a pro. “I had to deal with academics when I was at college, and I thought I would have some extra time (in the pros) because I didn’t have to study anymore. But I had to play once every two days or so and there were 80-plus games.

“America is such a big country and the traveling was tough. I was playing for two different teams on the two-way contract, so I wasn’t sure where I would be going until late at night. Sometimes I was told like 11 p.m. or so, ‘Fly down to New Orleans tomorrow’ and things like that.

“Nevertheless, I was having fun and it was such a fruitful season. So it was a great year.”

Having been in the NBA and G League, Watanabe insisted that the former is a “special place” to compete in.

“It was at a whole other level,” Watanabe, who played in the NBA Summer League in Salt Lake City and Las Vegas earlier this month, said of the NBA. “The G League provides a high-level competition as well. But when I was called up for the NBA, I realized the players in it had much faster speed and were stronger physically. So I thought the NBA was a special place and a place at another dimension.”

Watanabe also sent a message of encouragement to children who dream of playing in the NBA.

“I was saying I wanted to be an NBA player as a boy, and people would laugh at me, because there was only Tabuse,” said Watanabe, who will join the Japan men’s national team for training camps before the upcoming FIBA Basketball World Cup in China.

“But now, (Rui) Hachimura has been drafted (by the Washington Wizards). If there are children that want to go to the NBA, they should keep working hard toward the dream.”

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